We think we know so much about ghosts and the birth of what we consider modern paranormal investigation. Yet so much of what we believe is shaped by centuries of beliefs, ghost stories, and groundbreaking research. Digging to the bottom of hauntings is older than the Salem Witch Trials. And in his book Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof, Roger Clarke attempts to condense its long evolution into a single book.
Clarke was the youngest accepted member of the Society of Psychical Research in the 1980s, long before ghost hunting–a term which became part of common language thanks to a 1928 book by Elliott O’Donnell–became the television craze which we see today. Since he hails from England, the author writes of historical British stories mostly, with some commentary on American television and ghost fads of modern times such as haunted dolls. Clarke devotes time to the evolution of ghosts throughout history, the wide array of “ghost taxonomy” and equipment in standard use, and how forgotten figures of the past shaped the investigations we see on television today.
People such as Andrew Greene, Catherine Crowe, and Joseph Granvill are removed from the web-strewn shadows of the paranormal past and dusted off, revealing how the search for answers to ghostly phenomena has a very long and fascinating past stretching back before Charles Dickens envisioned his iconic Jacob Marley or Mary Shelley created Frankenstein’s Monster. But as Clarke states, this is “not a book about whether ghosts exist or not… [it’s] about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell about them.”
Ghosts provides a fascinating look into the mindsets, beliefs, and ideas of early investigators and how their methods are still entrenched in modern views of ghosthunting. From Catherine Crowe’s diligent interviews of witnesses and calculated observations of haunted locations to Professor Harry Price, the salesman by day and supernatural showman by night, and his “ghost hunting using technology as entertainment”, everything that you thought was a new idea or approach owes its origins to work conducted a century or more ago. Many people, including Hans Holzer, Harry Houdini, Queen Anne, and even Adolph Hitler appear in interesting places throughout humankind’s long-held fascination with ghosts.
Not only have ghosts shaped our culture, but they’ve been shaped by it as well. Daytime knocking spirits became nocturnal spirits of the dead. The fictionalized (and rarely experienced) chain-rattling ghost became a popularized view of specters. Ghosts as religious proof of God gave way to (largely American) beliefs that demons are afoot, turning old elemental nonhuman spirits into something far more sinister than their folktale cousins. Yet while societal shifts have effected public perceptions, there still remain common threads tying the modern haunted house as far back as ancient Greece.
Clarke features many lesser-known paranormal investigators of the past who you probably have never heard of unless you’re a scholar of the history of ghosthunting. Though he focuses mostly on the last 150 years, Clarke covers five long centuries of reported ghosts and those who’ve tried to find out exactly what causes things to go bump in the night. This book is a fascinating read and a perfect starting point for anyone truly interested in ghostly phenomena, beyond the misconceptions and folkloric truths passed along as established fact in today’s media. If you’re interested in investigating hauntings and want to catch up on the last 500 years of exploration into the subject, Ghosts makes for an ideal stepping stone.